Does Bilawal get away with what lands Maryam in prison?
The Sindh government recently released three official versions of Joint Investigation Team or JIT reports, ostensibly to counter the rhetoric PTI’s Ali Zaidi had effectively built up by allegedly citing from these reports in Parliament. The Sindh government later claimed that the Ali Zaidi versions were fabrications, to which Zaidi responded by launching into an intriguing tale of how there existed multiple versions of the joint investigations into Uzair Jan Baloch and Nisar Morai. According to Ali Zaidi, there was a deadlock between the four federal institutions investigating and the two provincial representatives. This led to a compromise fully signed report, but also a partially and unofficially endorsed ‘federal’ version, which contained far more detail, implicating the PPP and its leadership.
After the JIT reports were made official two weeks ago, the case against Uzair Baloch was fixed for hearing in the anti-terrorism court after a gap of three years. For all that time, Uzair was being tried under the Official Secrets Act on charges of rendering dubious services to the Iranians while he was in exile. The anti-terrorism court, where the charges related to his bloody politics are to be tried, and where he can possibly implicate the PPP, has not even begun its process.
In the fake accounts case, the State accuses PPP co-chairman Asif Zardari of masterminding the ‘Zardari system’. In a nutshell, the State alleges that kickbacks were paid into ghost accounts which were then funnelled through the banking system into a web of companies from which the Zardari family benefits. Numerous Sindh government ministers and functionaries are accused of facilitating this massive graft of public funds. Murad Ali Shah, as the finance minister of Sindh at the time, is damningly implicated. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is clearly identified as an alleged beneficiary, from the use of a private plane owned by a complicit company right down to a payment for his meal plans.
The fake accounts case as well as the Park Lane reference which stems from it, after spending the same amount of time in the court and investigative process as the references against the Sharifs, has yet to reach the stage where charges are framed. In the time that it has taken for Nawaz to be convicted twice, to appeal one of those convictions, to be rearrested in another case, and to get bail and go abroad, the trial of Zardari has yet to commence. The State has yet to present its evidence.
Notwithstanding the freewheeling and clearly partisan theatrics of the NAB in recent times, there are certain evidence backed allegations which cannot be ignored by simply shouting conspiracy. The Zardari legal team challenges the investigation on the ground that it lacks jurisdiction, and belongs in a banking court in Karachi instead of with the NAB in Islamabad. If it has specific answers to the allegations against him, they have not been made public.
Offenders, exceptions and targets
On March 14, 2015, the model Ayyan Ali was arrested at the Islamabad airport en route to Dubai with just over half a million dollars in cash. Ayyan was being escorted through the airport by someone who had served as the personal assistant to Zardari when he was President. The former president’s aide then called another public servant for an attempted rescue. That person happened to be the brother of former interior minister Rehman Malik. Latif Khosa, the former Governor of Punjab in Zardari’s presidency, later represented Ayyan in court where she faced allegations of being a cash mule smuggling money abroad. A customs inspector who was a state witness died in mysterious circumstances. It was later learnt that this was Ayyan’s 81st such trip.
Ayyan was eventually released on bail, and despite being a textbook example of a flight risk, was removed from the Exit Control List by the Sindh High Court, an order which Saqib Nisar upheld in appeal. She is now a proclaimed offender flitting between Gulf countries and has missed nearly 50 trial dates. The fake accounts investigation further unearthed several payments made to Ayyan Ali from the investigated accounts, including payments made to travel agencies for several air tickets for the model.
Next consider the case of the Emirati national, Nasser Abdulla Lootah, who features as a mysterious pin around which the threads of both the Zardari and the Sharif family fortunes loop. Lootah has become an approver in the State’s case against Zardari. Dead men supposedly pay customs duties for Zardari’s bullet-proof vehicles while poor widows are ignorant of billions of rupees moving around in accounts which later filter through to the entity collectively referred to as the Omni Group.
Maryam Nawaz is a shareholder in the Chaudhry Sugar mills, an investigation of which led to her last arrest in August 2019. The allegation against her and other relatives who are shareholders is that they sold their shares for considerable sums to foreign investors, who then gifted these shares back to her and her family without any consideration in return. The SECP flagged these transactions as suspicious in January 2018, when the PML-N itself was in government. One of the foreign nationals who features in this alleged money laundering by share purchase and gift back is Nasser Abdulla Lootah.
The allegations against Maryam act as a Sword of Damocles which she prevents from falling by keeping politically quiet. The weapons and ammunition against the PPP perhaps have a more far reaching effect.
Doublespeak, conveniences, ploys
In 2018, eleven Senate seats were to open up from Balochistan. The PML-N was likely to entrench itself in the upper house as it was leading the coalition government in the province at the time. In the run-up to the nominations, however, the PPP instigated a coup in the Balochistan Assembly. It helped install a CM whom only 544 constituents had entrusted with their vote. With this came the first whiff of the great conquest of 2018—the Senate seats were skewed away from the expected, with the PPP greatly outperforming expectations. At the time, both Bilawal and Zardari took ownership of the Balochistan CM shuffle.
After the 2018 general elections, when Nawaz wanted to reject the results, the PPP instead pushed for oath-taking. All the while it kept calling the elections illegitimate, and it later alleged that the PM was “selected”. When asked why they allowed for this farce to go on, Bilawal excused any decisive move against it “for the sake of the system” and its democratic continuity—the very same system he accuses of concocting a fraudulently selected government.
On August 1, 2019, the Opposition moved a resolution to hold a no-confidence vote against the chairman of the Senate, whose ascent to the position was made possible only by the PPP’s earlier political skulduggery. The resolution was passed with 64 senators in favour. Mere hours later, when the vote was held, with just 53 needed, only 50 senators voted against the chairman. Five votes were ‘rejected’. The clamour for an inquiry into the 14-vote anomaly has since died an inconclusive death.
Then came the Army Chief extension amendment, when the entire Opposition rapid marched in tune with the government. While it was clear enough that the PML-N did so in return for some breathing space, the PPP’s equal haste raised several eyebrows. When it was pointed out that his party’s opposition on the issue was absent, Bilawal explained this away by arguing that he could not change a single comma in the amendment after the PML-N had expressed support for it. But by this logic, Bilawal ought to have refrained from opposing any legislation where the government had the numbers, including the current budget which he opposed so viscerally.
When the iron of opportunity is hottest, we see the PPP repeatedly hiding the hammer it is to be struck with.
Rhetorical questions, double standards
Why does it take economist Dr Kaiser Bengali to sue for the unconstitutional composition of the National Finance Commission ahead of the 8th NFC award which will determine provincial ability to spend on health, education and infrastructure? Why is the Sindh government a bystander to a challenge so central to its ability to deliver politically? The Sindh government repeatedly laments how it is owed over a hundred billion rupees out of the federal pie—money that is being illegally withheld in violation of the constitutionally backed NFC Award. What stops it from suing for its rightful due, which would mean more education and healthcare for its citizenry, perhaps making a crucial difference politically?
Why did the PPP leave the legal challenge to influencer Cynthia Ritchie’s slanderous and personal attacks on Benazir Bhutto to Raja Shakeel Abbasi acting in his personal capacity? The FIA initially refused to even register the FIR, claiming Abbasi to be an inadequately aggrieved person. Why is the Gilani family alone in railing against Cynthia on Twitter, without it becoming an official party stance?
Why is there so much chatter about undoing the effects of the 18th Constitutional Amendment when the government clearly doesn’t have the numbers?
Meanwhile, the trials of Zardari proceed like tortoises, left behind by the hare-paced Sharif references. Murad Ali Shah runs Sindh without NAB interference despite having such an allegedly facilitative role in the fake accounts saga. For a far less spicy allegation, Aleem Khan was swiftly arrested before he could push as a serious contender for the crown of chief minister in Punjab. Bilawal feels free to ask tough questions on the biggest stage while allegedly being a beneficiary in the fake accounts case. He doesn’t even feel the need to apply for bail. On the other hand, a few tough-sounding rallies in Punjab had proved enough for the swift deposit of Maryam in jail for the Chaudhry Sugar Mills reference.
The severity of the charges claimed by the NAB against the PPP couldn’t be greater. The party is accused in the JIT reports which the NAB has made part of its reference in almost their entirety of institutional capture. It is alleged that the party was using the entire framework of government in the province of Sindh to aid and abet a criminal enterprise. There are allegedly proven money trails from State money to corrupt contractors, kicked back through fake accounts, paying for the everyday lives of the Zardari family. The finance minister at the time, Murad Ali Shah, is accused of affording the Omni Group sugar mills repeated subsidies beyond reason. Beneficial interest of Asif Ali Zardari is alleged in billions of rupees worth of property. Faryal Talpur is alleged to be holding several undeclared properties in the name of frontmen, whose addresses in the property deeds are the same as her officially declared residential address in her electoral forms. There are billions of dollars in assets which the Anwar Majeed family has failed to account for.
Here are a couple of the hundreds of billions of stolen dollars which Imran Khan swore to return. Which Murad Saeed promised to slap on the faces of creditors within three days.
It has been three years. Where is the trial? What are we waiting for?
Can this also answer where the 14 senators went, and where the PPP hides the hammer whenever it is time to strike? What greater irony than to have the same people who delivered the provincial independence enshrined in the Constitution help take it away?
Our politics has suffered enough cricketing analogies, but perhaps one is fitting here. The bookie Sanjeev Chawla recently claimed this about cricket matches: “They’re all fixed; it’s like movies being directed by someone.”
The writer is a lawyer and has been co-hosting Agenda 360 on SAMAA TV since 2009. He tweets at @Jaferii